Audrey Kupferberg: Shirley Temple

Feb 21, 2014

Shirley Temple died recently at the age of 85.  Her film career began when she was about 4 years of age, and she starred in motion pictures with phenomenal success through the age of 21.  During the mid-late 1930s, her box office power outdid the power of such stars as Clark Gable and Joan Crawford.  At that time, when much of the population of the United States was struggling through the Great Depression, little Shirley Temple was dancing, singing, and genuinely charming her way into the hearts of a nation.

There never has been another child star like her.  Here golden curls were bouncy and cute, her smile was heartwarming, and her little girl body was cherubic.   She was an on-screen symbol of confidence in the future, all that is wholesome and beautiful.  In one of her many films, STAND UP AND CHEER!, from 1934, the character she plays actually contributes to ending the Great Depression!

Among her best performances are those in which her tiny characters suffer loss and humiliation, but make remarkably strong comebacks.  Think of THE LITTLE PRINCESS, HEIDI, CAPTAIN  JANUARY and BRIGHT EYES.  Even in the 21st century, these are the sort of movies that allow grandparents to sit with their small grandchildren and share a family-oriented experience.  And back in the 1950s, with the initial sales of movie packages to television, baby boomers were able to enjoy the adventures of little Shirley.  And they also watched her as an adult hostess on “Shirley Temple’s Storybook” in the late fifties and early sixties. 

I remember my first encounter with Shirley Temple.  Back in the mid-fifties, my mother sent my sister and me to the movies on a Saturday afternoon to see a special showing of an old movie starring the legendary Shirley Temple.  I sat down to enjoy myself but soon was quite put off by this on-screen tyke.   Her hair was prettier than mine, and her mommy had spent a lot more time styling it.  She danced better than I did, even though I was attending dancing school twice a week.  She even was braver and more heroic than I was—but then how could I prove my worth in real life, which was not within an exciting drama of fast-moving events?  Of course, the years have dulled my childhood jealousy, and I greatly admire her talent.

Shirley Temple grew up and moved beyond motion pictures.  She knew how to live life.  She apparently was a loving family woman, and was an Ambassador both to Ghana and Czechoslovakia, along with her other political appointments.  When she was hit by breast cancer in the early 1970s, she became one of the first female public figures to speak of the modified radical mastectomy she had undergone.

In today’s world of celebrity, where bad-behavior runs rampant, the life of Shirley Temple is worth noting for many reasons, mainly because she seems to have made good decisions on a fairly consistent basis.

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She teaches film studies at the University at Albany and has co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

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